Not the Baja 1000: Surviving Laguna Salada

Two friends, their dogs, and a wet lakebed…

It was the fourth time the truck fishtailed. The wheel was cranked hard to the left. I was certain the wheels were almost perpendicular to the frame. Yet we moved forward. Until the fishtail pushed the front end left, and the back swerving right. In any other situation, we would have gone into a 180-degree spin and I automatically braced for it thanks to my stunt driving training. But I was driving across a dry lake bed, that had over a foot of water on it from the recent rains. Somehow that 180 never materialized.

The swerving reminded me of dreaded black ice on the midwest roads where I learned to drive. I hadn’t driven on an icy road for over 30 years, leaving all that behind when I moved to California in the 90s. My memory never forgot my Drivers Ed instructions – when faced with a skid on ice, you steer into it. I remembered these instructions perfectly. I flipped the wheel as hard as I could to the right, the back straightened out, the tires caught on whatever semblance of solid ground was below us, and I increased speed, steering for the one pair of ruts that was the only way through the 20 kilometers of pure adrenaline rush.

I was thinking of one thing – the pavement that I knew would be in front of us. I couldn’t see it, but I knew it was there, and that’s the singular thing I wanted, a desire so pure, everything else fell away. I knew from my motorcycling days and stunt car school, that your vehicle went where you looked. What you believed could happen is what happened. I’ve come into mountain corners on my motorcycle hot, cranked my head left, leaned into the corner, tracking the double yellow, back wheel kicking gravel over the edge. I don’t know how it works, but in stunt car school, you really do go where you look – and it’s not always in front of you.

I love cars. And driving fast. And nature. I’m pretty good at knowing my limits, but sometimes I go beyond them. I get scared, I second guess myself a lot, and have inconsistent confidence. But I do damn well under pressure.

A route out of town

Kelly had just finished her busy Halloween season. She makes crowns for celebrities and brides and gorgeous Dia de Los Muertos fatales. She wanted to get out of town. My work was slow, and would be getting slower with the holiday season. We had previously road tripped together (through Tonopah we had to stop at the Clown Motel). We both love our dogs, so I suggested we do a little trip to these hot springs in Mexico: Guadalupe Canyons. 4×4 is recommended, so we took my stock 2017 Toyota Tacoma 4×4 sport, with the beefy BFGoodrich K02 tires and Spice Must Flow bumper stickers.

We had finished 3 days offgrid. No internet or phone. Just the two of us, our dogs, and long soaks under shooting stars in the hot springs drinking White Claw. Monday morning we packed up and started a leisurely drive back to Calexico. From there, I’d head to my house in Joshua Tree.

We drove into Guadalupe Canyons at night. That means we missed views of the desert landscape. Still, you could see there had been some recent rains. On the way back, I thought it may be fun to explore the lakebed as it’s one of the routes to the canyon. We were feeling great, so when we came across a hand painted sign that said “Mexicali” we took it. It lead straight to the lakebed. And I assumed at some point we’d be able to cut back to the nearby washboard road.

Let’s go this way

The drive across the lakebed was gorgeous. It was much smoother than el washboard, and well packed. There were route markers. I think the Baja 1000 had just passed through, and I followed them. We stopped and took pictures. The vistas were gorgeous and our two pups posed perfectly out the window. It was almost too good to be true.

I like to get worried, so after what seemed like a long time, I wanted to find the road to return to El Washboard. I had stopped following the route cards a while back; they went in the wrong direction. As I was getting increasingly concerned, we came across a patch of moist muddiness. I’m not experienced with mud driving at all, so I immediately flipped a u-turn and headed back to dry ground. I took a road that seemed to head the direction we wanted, but it lead to a farm. There’s a different kind of fear when you come across a farm in the middle of Mexico in a truck with two women. I flipped it out of there ASAP.

We turned on our service to study the map and understand our options. I knew I didn’t want to drive through a muddy lakebed. We were close to the north end of the lake. It was only 20 kilometers to get to where we wanted versus backtracking all the way back down. I stopped at the intersection, and thought, 20 kilometers isn’t 20 miles. It’s not that far. How bad could it be?

This bad

We crossed the area where I first turned back – I could see the ruts I’d made – 8 inches into the cracked playa. It was moist, but not wet. I put it in 4×4 and kept a steady speed.

Mud is like sand, in that you can’t count on it’s stability, but the instability of mud, is different than sand. I had just put some beefy off road tires on my truck. I was in love with these tires. They were so chunky, angular, and fierce.

Interlude: Dear BFGoodrich, can I sing the praises of your K02s? Can I speak of the fierce tire tread that plows through sand, gravel, over rocky volcanic roads and apparently plows through 12 inches of thick wet baja laguna salada gunk. You are the best tires a woman could ever dream of. I love you.

I kept my calm as we continued, watching the road, and doing my best to stay in the ruts. The mud got wetter. Ruts got deeper. I could see standing water. My hands lightly gripped the steering wheel, which was being tossed from left to right. I kept my eyes in front of me with a laser-like lock on the horizon.

Time to slide

Then, we started fishtailing for the first time. I had the wheel cranked hard to my left. For some reason this helped us move forward. The back fishtailed to the right, and I could feel the truck want to spin into a 180. But something stopped us. We slowed, almost to a halt. My foot was on the throttle modulating the pedal, but never taking it off. The engine felt like it was almost dying and then when we were almost stopped the wheels caught something. The engine revved and I steered right. Now the back fishtailed to its place, and we were off in the ruts again. Mud was flying in great big waves across the front of the truck and onto the windshield. I would practice this maneuver 5 times before the drive was done, and each time I thought we were done.

Chemicals had dumped in my body. I didn’t have the luxury of stopping. Of catching my breath. Instead, I flipped on the wipers so I could see what I had to face next. After a time, I found higher, dryer ground. I had to stop.

Muddy reflection

I got out of the truck, and something inside me stopped. I looked at the truck. Then I looked at the muddy tracks that were in front of us. Knowing what we just gone through, I didn’t want to go back. The only way out was forward. I knew it was gonna be hell, and there was a very high likelihood that we’d get stuck. And I did not relish the thought of hiking out of a muddy lakebed with my friend and our two dogs in Mexico. After which, we would still have to extract my beast from the muck. But there was no choice.

Kelly says I cried, but I don’t remember the tears. All I remember was the complete desperation in that one decision back at the crossroads. The, “How bad can it be?” I had got myself into this, and I would have to get myself out. I studied the tracks to the horizon, and I laser beam locked on the pavement I knew was our future. There was 20km of wet lake bed between me and my goal. I calmed myself, and then I got back in the truck. It was show time.

Speed was my friend, but not too fast. Too fast, and if the mud was too wet, you’d fishtail. But you gotta keep enough speed and momentum to get through the ruts. The road got worse. A lot worse. Over a foot of standing water sat in the ruts. Then we’d find straight up standing water with no ruts. I attempted a few times to go off track, but quickly realized this was… inadvisable.

A learning curve

I learned that even though water was in the ruts and it looked muddy, it was more packed. I could sometimes drive on the dried crust of the previous tracks. We fishtailed 5 more times. In one of those, the wheels stopped moving and the engine wouldn’t respond to my gentle pressure on the accelerator. I never took my foot off the gas. I never stopped, even as I flipped into 4×4 low. Each time we fishtailed, I thought that was it, and I thought of that pavement. That beautiful pavement in our future. And then the engine started again, and the wheels caught on something and we were off again and I increased speed.

I allowed myself a few moments of bliss. I will never forget those great waves of mud coming across the hood of the truck, completely blacking out the windshield. So this was my personal Baja 1,000 experience.

We found solid ground and stopped twice to clean it. But by the third time I needed it, the lake bed was so wet and muddy I dare not stop. I could see through a tiny piece of clear windshield near the bottom – Kelly’s side was completely blacked out.

Almost there

I kept saying to myself, just be a little easier, just be just a little easier. And the reply was the greatest challenge yet. I was following two muddy tracks, and in the distance I could finally see cars on the freeway. The pavement was so close. But between us and that dry road was standing water. The tracks gave way to a complete mess, in retrospect, it looked like the results of a recovery. There was no clear way to follow, and I had to choose between open playa and a pool of standing water. I veered to the right of the standing water and found a lone set of tracks which I followed as waves of mud splashed up the hood of my truck, just a little closer, just a little closer, and then there was the solid ground.

Epilogue: I’m still dealing with the aftermath of that Baja mud. I’ve power washed the car 8 times, bought my own power washer even. Let it sit for over a week in various Utah and California rain/snowstorms, mud dripping off the undercarriage, and there is still 6 inches of mud down there. The Taco had barely a scratch, and the engine still purrs. And now I know I have the balls of steel to drive across a muddy lake bed. Tacoma, you are the best boyfriend I could ever want.

  1. I am keen to learn new techniques to remove the remaining 6 inches of playa mud in my undercarriage. Send your best advice. I’ve already tried most of the Google & YT suggestions.

This is the way Laguna Salada is most of the time:

This was what we DIDN’T want to happen: (You may have followed along with the Black Rock Playa Recovery)

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3 responses to “Not the Baja 1000: Surviving Laguna Salada”

  1. Sjalabais Avatar

    What a magic scenery! Are you allowed to drive just anywhere up there or are there rules to stick to the mud tracks?

  2. mdharrell Avatar

    “I am keen to learn new techniques to remove the remaining 6 inches of playa mud in my undercarriage. Send your best advice.”

    It’s a bit late to be useful at this point, but our technique for field trips to launch rockets at Black Rock is to take rental vehicles.

  3. Batshitbox Avatar

    I’ve been to Canyon de Guadalupe many times in Steve the Unremarkable White Pickup. First time I went there my co-pilot (who had already swore blind she had all the maps of Baja downloaded onto her phone, but discovered just over the border that NOPE! also half the roads are closed) said we should try the playa route on the way in. Fully loaded Steve was soon slewing sideways and eventually I went around in a wide circle to get back to pavement. Didn’t try the playa for a few years, and then only on the DRZ400.
    In later years I bought printed maps of the area, and we would caravan through Mexicali using my fleet of 5 watt walkie-talkies. Best way to go.

    Last time I was there it turned out the camp handyman and only year ’round resident had died in the lakebed when his truck broke down. This was not just some tourist, he was as familiar with that place as anyone can be.

    Even with all my experience, the last time I left there with a Dodge Van following me I didn’t give them a radio (?!?!), and told them to stick to the washboard road (same way you came in!) I drove much quicker on the washboard, and would wait periodically to see them in the rearview, until one stop where they never appeared. Just after that %^#@! Mexicali —> sign that points out into the playa. Through some infrequent text messages we learned that yup, the 70 year old lady and the 30-ish pilates instructor were stuck good out there. I refused to follow them out, being more use mobile, and instead waited for a while at the road exit, then went into town for cell service and to contact the tow truck. They’re very determined to rescue people stuck out there, but I swear they’re the ones that keep putting up that sign.

    They managed to dig their 1980s Dodge conversion van out, despite old age and inexperience, and even got a local to power wash the mud off. I’m surprised either one of them talks to me anymore. I never went back there.

    Steve, loaded for the Canyon. Steve is a 2WD with a freeway geared diff. I’ve seen Honda Civics make the road into the Canyon. In fact, a Prius was only stopped short by the water crossing at the mouth of the canyon.